Review: As You Were (Liao, 2014) – CAAMFest 2015

Still from the movie As You Were

As You Were is one of 16 films highlighted this year in CAAMFest‘s CinemAsia category, which showcases pictures from the international Asian film scene. Opposite in tone from the first CAAMFest narrative I screened, this film is as opaque as a difficult poem. Indeed, director Jiekai Liao‘s second feature views much like an attempt at translating poetry into film.

The movie is divided into three parts–with such elegiac names as “The Island of Misfits,” “Song for Tomorrow,” and the eponymous “As You Were”–all primarily taking place on a small, sleepy island south of Singapore. These three parts obliquely tell the tale of the unraveling romance between two childhood friends, Guohui (Josh Lai) and Peiling (Eshley Gao)–so obliquely, in fact, that the viewer almost has to read the film’s synopsis to be sure that’s what it’s actually about.

I have always praised films that are subtle, but can there be too much subtlety here?

As You Were is more mood than plot. Instead of looking for a straightforward storyline, audiences would be better served to simply let the film’s melancholy nostalgia wash over them. Scenes are marked by a stark absence of dialogue; the soundtrack instead focuses on noises in the environment. Voiceovers with notes of yearning regret overlay drowsy images of the characters, alone or lonely, wandering isolated vistas. Is the island an escape or a prison, or both? Could the same question be asked of love, and of lovers?

Poignant questions indeed. Still, I wish there was a bit more substance to the film. It’s difficult to care about these questions if you don’t feel much for the characters and can’t decipher their stories. A mood will only carry you so far, and flighty narratives eventually grow tiresome. We gather from scattered clues that Guohui and Peiling, separated for some time, seem to have reunited as adults and begun a love affair, one that is finally undermined by the time they spent apart–but all that occurs outside the film’s scope. The assumption must then be that the details of their past aren’t particularly important, but these details are exactly what I crave as a viewer. How can I care about their present dissolution if their past is so stubbornly abstract?

But such is the nature of poetry, whose beauty lies in its mystery, in what is not said, in what is difficult to understand. I have yet to decide, however, whether poetry works well as film.